The waters of the mighty Mekong River have sustained generations of families, but nowadays its fishermen often find their nets empty and fear hydropower mega-dams will destroy their livelihoods.
Pat Chaiwong has fished the Mekong in northern Thailand for three decades, but good days are increasingly rare.
“Some days I can catch fish. Some days I don’t catch any,” lamented the 67-year-old, one of about two dozen fishermen in the community of Wiang Kaen in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
For many in the community, the reason lies upriver in the Chinese province of Yunnan where dams on the upper reaches of the river disturb the delicate cycle of nature.
“Usually the water would rise [and fall] with the seasons,” said fisherman Decha Chaiwong, 48.
Now it ebbs and flows depending on whether the dams are open or closed, he said. “That’s why the fish have decreased.”
Today a new threat looms downstream in neighboring Laos.
The Xayaburi hydropower project is one of 11 planned on the lower Mekong, raising worries for the future of the 60 million people in the region estimated to depend on the river in some way.
The 4,800km-long waterway, the longest in Southeast Asia, is home to hundreds of species of freshwater fish including the endangered giant Mekong catfish, according to WWF, a conservation group.
Environmentalists warn that damming the lower Mekong would trap vital nutrients, increase algae growth and prevent dozens of species of migratory fish — including the giant catfish — swimming upstream to spawning grounds.
“If there is the Xayaburi dam, fish cannot lay eggs and the numbers of fish and their breeds decrease. There will definitely be a big impact,” said Niwat Roykaew, president of the Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network in Chiang Rai province.
Many of the roughly 200 species in the lower Mekong swim upriver to spawn — one of the most important mass river migrations in the world, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
The hydroelectric project at Xayaburi, led by Thai group CH Karnchang, has sharply divided four Mekong nations — Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand — who formed the MRC, an intergovernmental group.
Communist Laos, one the world’s most under-developed nations, believes the planned 1,285 megawatt dam — which will cost US$3.5 billion according to state media — will help it become “the battery of Southeast Asia.”
Thailand has agreed to buy most of the electricity generated by the project, but Cambodia and Vietnam fear the dam could seriously affect fish migration and sediment flows, hitting their farming and fishing industries.
Despite the concerns, construction on the main part of the dam began in November with Laos predicting completion by the end of 2019.
Niwat described the decision to go ahead without listening to people’s concerns as “a coup d’etat against the Mekong River.”
“We’re the children of the Mekong River. We were born and grew up on the Mekong. It has taken care of us and provided for us. Then one day the dams came,” he added.
His association has filed a lawsuit against the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Thai government in an attempt to block the project.
Neither EGAT nor developer CH Karnchang responded to request for comment.
Laos has modified the design to try to minimize the impact, said Hans Guttman, chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat.
The changes include a system to flush sediment through the dams and allow fish to migrate through fish passages, he said.
“It is still obviously up for question whether this sediment flushing will work as envisaged because it has never been tested, and there is also concern about whether the fish passages will work on a structure this big,” he added.
In a study published in 2011, the MRC warned that the construction of 11 dams on the river in Laos and Cambodia as well as dozens more on tributaries could cause fish catch to drop by at least 25 percent by 2030.
Thai villagers are fighting “on behalf of the Mekong” and also for people in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia who have less freedom of speech, said Pianporn Deetes with campaign group International Rivers.
“There are many festivals and traditions connected to the Mekong River,” she said, such as the mythical Naga snake that protects the Mekong.
“But if the dams are blocking the river, this means the Naga cannot move upstream,” she added.
The same goes for the Mekong giant cat fish, one of the world’s biggest freshwater fish which can reach three meters in length and 300kg in weight.
Already threatened by overfishing, only about 200 are estimated to remain, according to a recent study by WWF, which fears that dam construction will drive the iconic creature to extinction.
It has been years since one ended up in fisherman Pat’s net.” In the past, I caught a lot of them but now not at all,” he said. “I don’t know where they all went.”
The chills were what first tipped me off that something was wrong. It was an early Thursday evening in late February and I was sitting in my office. I normally hit an energy low this time of the day but this was different, as I suddenly felt chilled, absolutely drained of energy, the lightest of achiness in my muscles and joints and a slight pain behind my eyeballs. I went home, took a long hot shower and went to bed early. After a full day of rest, I felt normal enough on Saturday to jump on my bike and enjoy
1. If you go to the hospital for a check-up, plan for the worst-case scenario — having to stay there without returning home. Have a hospital “grab bag” to either take with you or have someone deliver. Recommended items include: T-shirts, shorts and sleeping clothes, socks and underwear, sweater/fleece, personal toiletries and medications, computer (and headphones) and phone plus charging cables, towel, slippers, nail clippers and reading material. Also, have a water bottle/container that nurses can fill up with drinking water. Remember that Taiwanese hospitals generally only provide the most basic of daily necessities. 2. If you test positive, anticipate
When a man surnamed Chen discovered that his wife, surnamed Chang, was having an affair with a foreign national surnamed James, he hired private investigators to catch them having sex. Chen and three private investigators staked out James’ apartment and, when they heard moaning sounds coming from Chang, burst in and filmed the couple in flagrante delicto. A judge later found the pair guilty of adultery and sentenced them to four months in prison, and ordered the foreign national to be deported. Like anywhere, adultery is a daily occurrence in Taiwan, and rarely a day passes when an adulterous couple
With around 10,000 descendants packing the ancestral shrine every Tomb Sweeping Day, the Yeh family’s grand affair made a bid for the Guiness Book of World Records in 2016. They won’t be coming even close on Saturday. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, less than 30 people will be attending and conducting the rituals. “We hope that our ancestors don’t take offense,” branch association head Yeh Lun-tsai (葉倫在) tells the Liberty Times (sister paper of the Taipei Times). Tomb Sweeping Day activities can potentially aggravate the spread of the virus as large groups congregate in cemeteries and columbariums at the same